Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Review - March by Geraldine Brooks

Readers of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women will remember that throughout the classic tale of four young girls growing up during the Civil War, the father is absent. In her book, Ms. Brooks imagines what his life was like while he was away from his family, serving as an army chaplain. We meet him following a major battle, during which he tried, but failed, to save the life of a young soldier. Wracked by guilt, he goes in search of those who survived, only to discover his unit has taken shelter in a house he first visited as a young, and very different, man.

This revelation precipitates the first of many flashbacks, in which we learn about how he made and lost a fortune, met and fell in love with Marmee and the work they did in support of the Abolitionist cause. The flashbacks are interspersed with his narrative about his work on a Union protected plantation being run by a Northerner employing freed slaves, where he teaches the workers to read.

We also watch as he struggles to write letters home without revealing the horrors of his situation and how he tries to comes to terms with certain actions he committed in his past. The story intersects with the events in Little Women from time to time. Seeing Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy from another point of view is fascinating, as are the glimpses of a very different Marmee from the one created by LMA.

March himself is loosely based on Louisa's own father, Bronson Alcott (Little Women was semi-autobiographical), though his occupation as a chaplain is purely fictional. Having read bios of LMA and some of her non-fiction, I recognized those elements while reading the novel.

Her descriptive prose and natural dialogue ring true to the period while the balance of past and present is superb. Flashbacks can dominate a book, yet hers only serve their intended purpose, adding depth to an already complex and tormented protagonist.

Nor does she stint on historical detail - especially in the battle and hospital scenes. Readers with a weak stomach have thus been warned, but I urge to you forge ahead with this book regardless. The violence and gore are never gratuitous and are in fact necessary to experience the full power of the story.

If you're looking for an absorbing read, full of history and human emotion, pick up this book and lose yourself in it.

Teresa Basinski Eckford

This review first appeared on my Thoughts from Lady Tess blog on July 29, 2008

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